A plea to Peers: a last chance to reconsider radical changes to UK parliamentary boundaries

This may be the last opportunity to scrutinise a bill that proposes fundamentally altering the workings of our democracy by re-drawing the boundaries of UK constituencies and reducing the number of Members of Parliament.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg
12 January 2011

This may be the last opportunity to scrutinise a bill that proposes fundamentally altering the workings of our democracy by re-drawing the boundaries of UK constituencies and reducing the number of our Members of Parliament. Stuart Wilks-Heeg, executive director of Democratic Audit, argues that the measures set out in the bill represent a 'sledgehammer to crack a nut' and could do more harm than good. He is urging Peers to reconsider this controversial bill that has been pushed through Parliament with undue haste. 

The controversial Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill enters its eighth day at the Committee stage in the House of Lords today, with at least two further days to follow next week.  This is likely to be the last opportunity for any serious scrutiny of the far-reaching ‘reduce and equalise’ provisions contained in the Bill. If passed  without amendment, these will see the number of seats in the Commons reduced from 650 to 600 and Parliamentary boundaries re-drawn so that 99.5 per cent will have electorates within 5 per cent of the national average. 

Democratic Audit has expressed serious reservations about ‘reduce and equalise’ ever since the Bill was published. In a series of papers we have highlighted that there is little or no clear evidence to support the government’s justifications for the reforms – that the House of Commons is over-sized by international standards and the variations in constituency size are abnormally wide.  We have come to the view that the measures represent a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’.  Moreover, if the sledgehammer is wielded in this way, there could be grave consequences for both the operation of Parliament and the representation of the people.

The government has never made any sort of case to show how having fewer MPs is supposed to improve the quality of our democracy. The coalition’s rationale seems to rest almost entirely on the argument that other countries manage with fewer MPs (which ignores the fact that virtually every other democracy has greatly more elected representatives at local and regional levels) and a vain hope that it will save £10 million or so (a populist, and misguided reaction to the MPs’ expenses crisis). As Lewis Baston and myself have highlighted, there has  been no consideration whatsoever of the potential impact that having fewer MPs may have on the scope for Parliament to hold the executive to account, or the implications of Lords reform for the size and function of the House of Commons.

At the same time, the proposals to equalise Parliamentary boundaries to within five per cent of the mean (about 76,000 electors) have been rushed through without pausing to consider what this may mean for the geography of the resultant constituencies, the extent to which they ‘make sense’ to local electorates, and the degree to which they will need to be re-drawn every five years to stay within the five per cent band.

Democratic Audit’s modelling of what the new electoral geography could look like, carried out by Lewis Baston, reveals that almost every existing constituency will need to be re-drawn in time for 2015. County boundaries will need to be crossed, wards split, and estuaries traversed.  Moreover, all of this will have to happen again in time for the 2020 General Election, and every 5 years thereafter. None of this does much at all to tackle the ‘bias’ in the electoral system against the Conservatives – the principal explanations for which are the geographical concentrations of Labour and Conservative support and the differential turnouts in the seats which the two main parties tend to win by large margins.  

Amendments have been tabled in the Lords which offer the scope to produce more equalised constituencies and which would enable more natural and more stable constituencies to be formed. In our latest paper on ‘reduce and equalise’ published today, we argue for:

·      - A 10 per cent permitted variation in seat size, replacing the 5 per cent rule;

·      - Either a list of further permitted geographical special cases, or the restoration of the Boundary Commission’s ability to use its discretion for special geographical circumstances;

·      - Creation of a new category of anomalous seats to deal with the new problem of constituencies with grossly oversized population compared to electorate;

·      - Boundary reviews every 10 years rather than every 5 years;

·      - The restoration of the right to a public inquiry.

As Lewis Baston notes in this report:

“Amendments of this nature will not prevent the achievement of a level of equality between constituencies that is towards the top of the international league table, and closer to equality than the Australian House of Representatives (and possibly the American House of Representatives as well). They will enable the new constituencies to be more identifiable by their constituents, more stable, more sensible with respect to the physical and administrative geography, and therefore more likely to be sustainable – while still meeting the government’s aim of greater equality”.

We are urging Peers from all sides of the House to give serious considerations to these issues as they attempt to ensure that a Bill of such great constitutional importance, which has been pushed through Parliament with undue haste, receives the scrutiny which earlier stages of the legislative process have singularly failed to provide. It is not yet too late to produce a more workable set of provisions – but the clock is ticking fast.

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